There is a longer post to come in the future on “how I opened a coffee shop in Colombia”, but for now I wanted to share a few early thoughts I’ve had:
It is an emotional rollercoaster
Both on a daily and weekly level, there are (many) moments of anxiety as you wait for the first customer of the day, the lunch “rush”, and the after-work crowd to come in. There are moments of high-stress when you get a brunch rush with multiple orders of differing plates and drinks that each need to be delivered at the same time. There are moments of pure flow when you and your team are absolutely crushing it. There are moments of genuine delight when you receive overwhelming feedback or when new customers come in and tell you they came because their friend was raving about the new spot. There is a sense of fulfillment when we convince someone who says they “typically eat meat” to try our mushroom “bacon” sandwich or something else and they proclaim to be surprisingly satisfied. There are the sensory explosions of making an incredible coffee or tasting the latest insanely delicious concoction from the kitchen. There is the frustration of letting a client down by serving something that is good but not great, or when you forget about an order someone makes off-the-cuff only to realize 3 minutes after they leave. It’s exhausting, but it offers an element of surprise to each and everyday, and often surprise to the upside.
Your customers define who and what you are
We had always thought of ourselves as a specialty coffee shop with an elevated food menu to accompany the coffee beverages. But despite opening at 7am everyday, we have found ourselves as more of a brunch, lunch and post-lunch spot (onces, as it’s known here). People appreciate the quality of our coffee but are typically coming for more of a meal or afternoon snack. That may be partially accredited to the fact that we’ve got an incredible kitchen team (led by KC) who are churning out delicious and different food, but it appears that the “morning pre-work coffee” isn’t much of a thing here — at least not in this neighborhood. We picked up on this quickly and immediately added a “lunch combo” of soup and toast to the menu so we could point someone towards a more traditional “meal”, and have subsequently added a (dank) mushroom & black garlic risotto which is now the most expensive item on the menu. As we’ve been describing the different toasts we offer we’ve found ourselves frustrated that people weren’t ordering the simple but delicious toasts such as black garlic & butter or fresh ricotta & jam of the day, but when offered alongside a “heartier” avocado toast or shiitake mushroom toast at the same price, customers have opted for the more filling option 95% of the time. There are certain things we won’t compromise on – we will always be a vegetarian establishment and we’re never going to get lazy and add something generic like a wok of stir-fried veggies – but we’re continually learning from our customers and adapting as such.
Solving the business operations is an exciting puzzle
5 weeks in, I’m convinced that Mesa Salvaje can be successful. We already have a number of repeat customers, and many customers have recommended us to their friends; we’ve had 2 crazy Sunday brunch rushes; every week’s sales to-date have been at least 10% better than the prior week, last week we were only about 23% below where I think we need to be to be sustainable, and this week has started off with a bang; our gross margin of ~40% in January has already expanded to more than 50% as we have gotten into the flow of ordering as inventory runs out.
That said, we are still currently in the red (as we expected to be for the first few months), and figuring out how to optimize our space, our menu, our staff schedule, our suppliers and more is an exciting challenge. One of my favorite parts about the deal process at JPMorgan was the Due Diligence surrounding a company’s projections – “yes, I know you say your revenues are projected to rise by 3% next year which is conservative relative to your historical performance, but how specifically do you intend to grow revenue?”. In essence, I now get to ask myself that question on a day to day basis, and tweak different variables in order to test the outcome. What types of events are not only aligned with our business, but boost revenue both on that day but also by winning new repeat business? How do we get people here in non-peak hours? How do we change our menu design to both offer great value for the customer while also promoting our higher margin products? How do we ensure we can serve people in the most efficient manner during a Sunday brunch rush? How can we use the same ingredients in different recipes to ensure our menu is varied but inventory is manageable? Is it ever worth it to invest in promotion (we spent $15 on an Instagram ad and were pretty impressed at the results – not just likes and new followers but genuine engagement with people entering the shop and messaging us on IG for more info)?
We’ve been super lucky
I need to acknowledge that we’ve had a lot of luck along the way to where we are today. We lucked out in finding the space we did, the friend who was qualified to be a project manager who just so happened to be looking for a fresh and different project to work on, the handyman who did the majority of the renovation, the incredible head barista we hired whose resume was forwarded to us by our neighbors (one of the best restaurants in Colombia), the incredible chef we met after he left his old gig because the restaurant owner was an asshole, the amazingly friendly business neighbors we have who are comfortable enough with their own establishments that not only have they recommended Mesa Salvaje to their own clients, but they themselves have become some of our most loyal customers, and even the weather, which has generally been lovely and especially has to-date been cooperative during our outdoor events. Even the police were super friendly when they came asking to check our documentation and they politely informed me that I was lacking certain documents and would need to resolve it We know the luck won’t last forever, but it has certainly helped us get off the ground more expediently than I would have otherwise imagined.
When you build or make something interesting, new opportunities emerge from it as a natural course of events
One of the best parts about building Mesa Salvaje has been meeting and working with incredible people who are doing amazing things and offering new sources of business opportunities and exciting ideas. For example, our chef makes an incredible home made chipotle hot sauce that multiple people have asked to buy, so we’re looking into getting the right licenses to bottle that and sell it to the public writ large; the head chef at an amazing local restaurant, formerly the sous chef at the best restaurant in Latin America, is interested in collaborating on communal dinners together; we’ve had a couple of wealthier customers ask if we’re looking for investors to expand; we’ve had someone buy an entire carrot cake to-go after tasting how good it was, which may be a different opportunity for us; a friend who works in exportation expressed an interest in procuring a roaster and leveraging our space to roast his own coffee. There are many different avenues that have opened up to us simply by building a socially-oriented business that serves high quality products in an attractive space. As my Dad told me when he visited recently, the key is now choosing the right opportunities that are impossible to say no to at the right time, cognizant that they will likely distract us from our core mission.
I will never regret doing this
There’s a very good chance that Mesa Salvaje doesn’t work out, in the same way that 90% or some ridiculously high number of small businesses “don’t work out”. But whatever happens, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life to date. The expected and unexpected lessons learned; the skillsets gained; the public space we’ve transformed; the positive feedback earned and the insightful constructive criticism we’ve deserved; and most importantly the members of our team we’ve been able to impact. I recognize that it is impact on a very localized level for a relatively few number of people, but I couldn’t be prouder of the work we’re doing right now. As the urgency of the fight against Climate Change grows daily I will likely look to scale my impact over time, but today I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.